What is Fortified Wine?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Intimidated by fortified wines like sherry and port? Don't be. Put simply, fortified wine is a blend of still wine and distilled spirit. Besides being your Grandma’s favorite kitchen staple, fortified wines have a lot to offer. Quite a few different varietals exist—think of this as a basic primer.

Spirited Additions

Fortified wines have existed for hundreds of years. Since ethanol is a natural antiseptic, adding it to anything kills off most of what could potentially spoil it. During colonial times, the heartiness of the fortified wine meant that it could be shipped long distances without compromising its flavor.

The distilled spirit, usually a grape brandy, is added either during or after a wine’s fermentation. During fermentation, Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast is added to the juice of grapes that have been slowly and gently squeezed and filtered. Over the course of fermentation, the yeast converts the grape's natural sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide.

As yeast cells can’t survive in high ethanol concentrations, the fermentation process stops when the wine’s alcohol content gets higher than 12-15 percent. This process can also be halted by the addition of a neutral spirit, as is done in port. Adding the spirit before fermentation is complete also ensures that much of the grape’s natural sugar remains in the final product.

Touring Port

This Portuguese product must be made of grapes that were grown and processed in the country's Douro region. By European Union law, anything labeled as port must originate here.

According to history, port was not created by sailors trying to preserve the Portuguese product. Instead, representatives from an English wine merchant chanced to visit the Abbot of Lamego in 1678. After tasting the sweet, smooth port and learning how it was fortified, they bought his entire stock and shipped the lot back to England.

In the following years, port became so popular that the port houses began shipping in grapes from other regions. When this news broke, the drink quickly lost popularity within England. This resulted in the passing of a legally-binding designation of origin to protect its definition, making port the third oldest appellation in the world.

A Sherry History

Under European law, sherry must come from the region around Jerez, Spain. Typically produced with white grapes, the wine base is allowed to ferment entirely before the grape brandy is added. From there, different blends are aged using various methods. Blends designated for Fino and Manzanilla sherry are then rested in barrels where they develop a yeast-like growth called "flor." This layer protects the liquid from excess oxidization, giving the final product a lighter color and drier taste.

Oloroso sherry, on the other hand, is more heavily fortified. As a result, the flor doesn’t develop, and the blend oxidizes. Since most of the natural sugar is processed during fermentation, sweet varietals of sherry are then sweetened with the juice from dried grapes.

Hit the Lab

Clair McLafferty

If you want a safe way to try out some new sherries, make yourself a sherry flip. (Nervous about the whole farm egg thing? Putting eggs in cocktails is a tradition that predates the word "cocktail." It’s also totally safe!)

Sherry Flip
4 dashes chocolate mole bitters
Whole farm egg
Short 0.5 oz Grade B maple syrup
2 oz Oloroso or other dry sherry

Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin. Shake vigorously without ice for 20-30 seconds. Add ice and shake for another 17-20 seconds. Strain into a chilled rocks glass and enjoy.